An administrator's life: Stories of ambiguity, power, and sensemaking at en elite university

Sean E Vereen, University of Pennsylvania


In 1978 at a large prestigious urban research university called Elite University (EU), minority students who felt their issues were not being adequately addressed by EU's administration took over the Administrative Services Building, which housed the registrar, financial aid, and other administrative offices. Among their demands to EU's President, was the creation of a “Third-world Center” which would be the central resource for minority student life. It was not until 1984 that the Intercultural Center opened its doors to serve that purpose. Between 1999–2001, additional student demands resulted in the opening of three ethnic-specific centers. The Latino Cultural Center, Asian American Cultural Center, and Black Cultural Center were designed to work in conjunction with the Intercultural Center, and were administratively housed in the Student Services Division (SSD). Ultimately, they became known as the “Cultural Centers.” Using Cohen and March's organizational model of an organized anarchy, Perrow's theories about inequality in bureaucratic organizations, and Weick's concept of developing understanding in complex organizations, this study examines how the directors and the student leaders of the “Cultural Centers” understand their role within the institution, the implications that this understanding has on their work, and their interactions with EU's President, Provost, and SSD's Dean. The organizational environment that directors and student leaders inhabit is a complex one in which institutional methods, goals, and decision-making processes are poorly understood or defined. Additionally, the Cultural Centers occupy a marginal place in both EU's administrative culture and the agendas of the President, Provost and Dean of SSD. Directors' and constituent leaders' experiences are defined by attempting to generate and protect their understanding of life at EU from the constant ambiguities generated by the institution as well as transforming their marginal organizational position into a more central and valued one at EU. Yet, directors' and constituent leaders' understandings and actions are often isolated by high-level administration or overwhelmed by the complexity of institutional processes. This study examines the possibilities for achieving both the directors' and students' goals by developing conceptual tools for sustaining more complex methods of understanding and navigating EU's organizational environment.

Subject Area

School administration|Higher education|Bilingual education|Multicultural education

Recommended Citation

Vereen, Sean E, "An administrator's life: Stories of ambiguity, power, and sensemaking at en elite university" (2005). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3177646.